It really is ok to bathe nude with strangers.
If you’re coming to Japan and not going to have an onsen, you’re missing one of the most sublime experiences this country has to offer. And if the lure of the cultural experience is not enough to entice you, the benefits that can be gained from a soak in the mineralised thermal heated water after a hard day on the hill can’t be overstated. So do yourself a favour, leave your western sensibilities in your room, and take a walk on the wild side – you can thank me later.
Onsen Etiquette – this will take the guess work out of what (and what not) to do.
- Most public onsens are segregated, but you can sometimes find private onsens that are mixed. For a first trip segregated really is the way to go. Ask at reception if you’re not sure which onsen to go to, we’ll be able to give you some options close by. Children are welcome at onsens, but the expectation is that they will also follow the rules, noting that rules are an integral part of the Japanese way of life.
- The cost of a simple to medium end onsen will usually be about 500 yen but can go up to 2000 yen. For high end establishments the sky is the limit.
- Onsens can be indoor or outdoor and the architecture is often staggeringly beautiful and designed to inspire calm and contemplation. There is something exquisite about sitting in a delightfully hot pool with the snow drifting down on your head.
- Pack your bathroom needs and a clean change of clothes – some onsens will provide shampoo, conditioner, soap, and hairdryers as part of the entry fee but it’s best to be prepared. You can take a towel and a small, face washer sized, modesty towel but the onsens will also provide these for a small fee.
- When you arrive at the onsen house there will be an entry area where you remove your shoes, as is the custom in many Japanese establishments, and payment may be either via a ticket vending machine or at a staffed reception area.
- There are generally three main sections to the onsen; the change room, the shower area, and the onsen (hot soaking pool/s).
- The first room you enter will be the change room. This is where you face the music and leave your inhibitions behind – under no circumstances should you wear clothes or swimmers in the onsen. Remember, communal bathing at onsens are a part of the Japanese culture so the only person that is potentially going to be feeling embarrassed is you.
- There will be baskets for you to store your things in and if you have valuables you can hire a locker, though theft in Japan is rare. Take a deep breath, strip off, and grab your bathroom items but leave your drying towel behind. This is where you can use your modesty towel to cover up, though I use the term ‘cover up’ loosely.
- It’s probably stating the blindingly obvious, but don’t stare. The name of the game is looking without seeing. And for the love of all that is reasonable, leave snapping selfies for somewhere else. Taking in a bottle of water to drink is a good idea, but leave the beer until you’re finished – some onsens will have vending machines that sell beer but these are so you can have a quiet drink while you wait for your partner or friends to finish. You can’t rush a good onsen experience and each person tends to take their own time.
- You must always wash thoroughly BEFORE you enter the onsen pool, and doing this at your hotel is not enough. The shower room will have small stools that you sit at to undertake your ablutions.
- Once you’re clean it’s time to go and relax in the onsen. Calm is theme here. No jumping in, no swimming, no splashing about. The modesty towel shouldn’t go in to the water, most choosing to place the towel on their heads while they’re soaking, but placing the towel on the onsen edge or a rock is also acceptable. If the towel gets wet you can wring it out outside the onsen pool.
- Once you’re done feel free to have another shower if you like but either way wipe off as much water as you can with your face towel before re-entering the change room to get dry and dressed.
- Lastly, be aware that tattoos are still largely considered taboo in Japan. Often those Japanese people that have them are linked yakusa or gangsters, so in the event the onsen owner does not permit you to enter or asks you to leave because of your tatts, please be mindful of their culture and be prepared to leave without a fuss.